Anyone who has read Joyce Carol Oates’ remarkable novel Black Water which is narrated by the fictional version of Mary Jo Kopechne as she is drowning in the car driven by the drunk Ted Kennedy in summer 1969, need not see this film. The novelist’s ability to get inside the head of the young political aide is flawless, brutal and exquisite – none of which might be applied to this adrenalin-free account of the controversy that came to be known simply as Chappaquiddick.
Ted Kennedy, following in the footsteps of his esteemed but fallen brothers, JFK and Bobby, has presidential aspirations. But he also exhibits the failings of those belonging to privilege: egotism, arrogance and hedonism. During a summer party on Martha’s Vineyard, a drunken Teddy drives off into the night with one of Bobby’s campaign staffers and the car dives off a bridge. As the car sinks, Ted escapes, failing in his attempts to retrieve Mary Jo, whose body is discovered the following day when the police are alerted by local fishermen.
In later years, what plagued Ted Kennedy and arguably cost him the Presidential nomination in 1980, was not the accident itself (construed rightly or wrongly by many to involve infidelity as well as alcohol), but rather his behaviour in its immediate aftermath. Kennedy swam to shore, sat on the riverbank, and slowly walked back to the party to enlist help from his cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and friend Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan).
This is a rare case where actual events have more wattage than their cinematic treatment, largely due to the strange passivity of Jason Clarke’s Ted Kennedy.
When, unable to retrieve Mary Jo (Kate Mara), his companions insisted he call the police, Ted returned to the mainland and went to bed in a local inn. It was ten hours before the police were alerted, suggesting that Ted was, as was the Kennedy way, seeking advice and weighing the options before taking the kind of moral action mere mortals would take.
The Kennedy family was driven by its patriarch Joe Kennedy, friend of gangsters and arch manipulator of his sons’ political trajectories, who was in the final months of his life when Chappaquiddick happened. In film director John Curran’s take on the incident, Joe’s disgust at Ted both preceded and followed the accident, the implication being that Joe’s imperious and unforgiving judgement may have been at the heart of Ted’s dissolute excesses. Bruce Dern fills this cameo with a vitriol more dramatic than anything else in the narrative – and the fact that his character is stroke-afflicted tells you exactly how undernourished this film is.
Curran’s film follows a plodding chronological structure and is not helped by a script that spells out every character element or plot point. Every meaningful symbolic moment is explicitly provided, whether to point out privilege, patriarchy or hubris. This dogged tone would lend the film a documentary quality but this is a rare case where actual events have more wattage than their cinematic treatment, largely due to the strange passivity of Jason Clarke’s Ted.
The film is driven by a tangible air of judgement – and so, one might argue, it should. The problem is that with no forceful ambiguities, no sense of the competing claims of ego which upset moral acuity, no real sense of the ambition that gets in the way of his humanity, Clarke’s Ted appears as lifeless, vacuous and stupid, deadened by events rather than animated by them – which may have been true, but isn’t dramatically interesting.
Chappaquiddick seems to have been structured without any invitation to allow our own morality to sway as Ted Kennedy’s did under the influence of other forces.
There is virtually no conflict in the film – despite a heroic attempt by the filmmaker to pit the ethical Joseph Gargan against self-interested Ted Kennedy – hardly a statuesque plot. In having almost no backstory to Mary Jo Kopechne, we are denied any emotional investment in her life or death. We might be intellectually outraged by Ted’s behaviour but we don’t feel the sorrow. And we are ultimately denied the suspense of what will happen, since we know very well the outcome of Ted Kennedy’s life.
Great films based on history are sometimes so compelling the viewer can suspend their knowledge of events and enter into the dramatic potential of the storytelling, holding onto a sense of suspense, emotional involvement and anticipation. Some anti-heroes are so brilliantly humanised that we can even hope they get away with murder. But Chappaquiddick seems to have been structured without any invitation to be emotionally subsumed, to allow our own morality to sway as Ted Kennedy’s did under the influence of other forces. Ted is not merely bad, he’s dull. There are no insights or throw-away moments here that allow us to glimpse what allowed him to survive the scandal politically, and become one of the most popular and long-lasting Democratic senators in American history, even if he never made President.
Nor is there any speculation or revelation to enlighten or alter our view of the Kennedy mystique. The overall effect is to remind us that a more subtle approach to character can sometimes kill it in drama and that life, unedited and overly complex, is occasionally is more glittering than art.
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